The most credible way for a story about Nigeria’s multi-billion-dollar Internet scamming industry to be told is by a Nigerian, from a Nigerian point of view. Only someone from the culture can speak freely to the attractions of this vast, illegal enterprise, and about the systemic corruption and moral decay that gave birth to it.
“Nigerian Prince” is a thriller that lays out the parameters of the “have-nots” preying on the “haves,” paints its anti-heroic “hero” into a corner and dares pass judgement on him, the “system” and maybe on us for falling for con artists.
First-time feature director Faraday Okoro has to contort this story to work an American into it, just to give the tale a victim and an outsider’s point of view, and that strain shows from beginning to end. But he’s still made a fascinating story of a dysfunctional country where everybody hustles, and all you can do is minimize the hustles pulled on you.
Eze, who prefers to be called “Easy” back home in the States, is the teen son of divorced Nigerian-American parents who arrives in Lagos, and is promptly conned out of “bribe” money. Eze (Antonio J. Bell) doesn’t want to be here, but his mother has shipped him there “to learn who you are” and maybe straighten him out. Not living with his father, he’s losing his way, getting in fights at school.
That entire premise, that sending somebody to an albeit vibrant but dangerous Third World African country so that he’ll “straighten out,” be safe and grow up to be better educated and more focused as an adult seems dubious. And “Nigerian Prince” in no way makes that case.
Unless the idea is that Eze sees just what his parents fled, and what they’re going through to give him a better life. Aunt Grace (Tina Mba) may be a college professor, but she lives in a tiny apartment with a single bed. Hot water is in short supply, and power black-outs are a fact of life.
“That’s Nigeria for you,” Auntie sighs, hinting that “powerful” people and corruption are the reasons for every chronic shortage and inefficiency in the culture.
The boy can complain to mommy back home all he wants. He’s stuck there for a month, he’s been told. Learn to eat the food, mind your aunt and cope with the limited Internet access.
That isn’t a problem for Prius (Chinaza Uche). When we meet him, he’s hustling some hapless Indo-African car shopper into buying the same stolen car he’s sold and resold before. The whole “I need you to send me your account information so that I can launder my cash through your accounts, giving you a BIG payday” online scam is just one con of many he’s running at the same time.
Prius is a “419er,” as they call the scammers of Lagos. It’s the number of the law in Nigerian legal code for Internet fraud. And when he and Eze meet, after mistaken identity punches have been thrown, Eze learns Prius is Aunt Grace’s wayward son. They’re cousins.
“Nigerian Prince,” which is ostensibly following two story threads — complaining Eze’s ongoing feud with Grace and his folks back home, and Prius’ parade of scams — merges into one story as Eze, who’s had his laptop and his lip busted by the older man, decides Prius is his new role model.
That unlikely turn of events is handled in a most ungainly and abrupt way, but never mind. Eze is quickly sucked into schemes aimed at keeping Prius out of jail, where the police chief who has him roughed-up is threatening a far worse fate.
“You are far too stupid to ever make any money in this (scamming) business,” he is warned. And by the way? Give the chief a bribe or you’re dead by Friday.
Okoro’s script, co-written with Andrew Long, plays with the racism-classism ingrained into Nigerian life. All a white Australian passenger (Craig Matthew Stott) at the airport has to do to retrieve Eze’s lost “bribe” money is be white and threaten to call the authorities.
The scams covered run the gamut, from the car title hustle to selling useless reserved tickets for rice you’ve been selling at a discount to customers who got there “too late” to get stock you have on hand, to literal money “laundering.”
Prius is caught, chased, hunted and threatened, and Eze falls into the background of the film, whose title is a play on words that works under several interpretations.
Uche makes a magnetic, amoral hustler who knows “this is wrong, but I don’t care.…In Nigeria, all anybody cares about is ‘money money money money.'”
The street life is vividly captured, and the dialogue — in English, Igbo and Yoruba (with English subtitles) — is sharp and expository.
If the plot takes a few predictable and a few implausible turns, that’s a forgivable sin in an otherwise eye-opening and immersive story that only a Nigerian could properly tell.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence
Cast: Antonio J Bell, Chinaza Uche, Tina Mba
Credits: Directed by Faraday Okoro, script by Faraday Okoro, Andrew Long. A Vertical release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:44